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Sunday, March 23, 2003

Legislature Ends 60-Day Session

By Loie Fecteau, David Miles and Kate Nash
Journal Staff Writers
    SANTA FE The Legislature adjourned Saturday after passing tax cuts, school reforms and tougher DWI penalties while also fattening lawmaker retirement benefits and dipping into savings accounts to balance a $4.1 billion budget.
    Legislators also approved a 70-cent-a-pack hike in the cigarette tax and fee increases to help provide revenue for new and ongoing spending. And, in the final hours of the 60-day session, they adopted a proposal to keep the state's 17-cents-a-gallon gasoline tax from dropping by a cent this summer.
    Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat who took office Jan. 1, pronounced the session a historic success as he visited the House and Senate floors before the constitutional noon adjournment to thank the state's 112 part-time lawmakers.
    "I think the citizens feel the state is now moving forward," the new governor later told reporters. "I think they sense a new era has started."
    Lawmakers said the session included more cooperation and less bickering and gridlock than the previous eight years under Republican Gov. Gary Johnson.
    "There was all this pent-up energy and desire to pass legislation that it just exploded," Richardson said.
    "We cast aside the partisan gridlock, and we accomplished more this session than I think anybody thought possible," he said.
    Both Republican and Democratic legislative leaders praised Richardson, a Democrat, for communicating and working with them throughout the session, which began Jan. 21.
    "The governor being involved with us made it the smoothest session since I've been up here," said House Minority Leader Ted Hobbs, R-Albuquerque. "His (Richardson's) fingerprints were all over a lot of legislation."
    Senate Majority Whip Mary Jane Garcia, D-Doña Ana, said Richardson's involvement throughout the session kept the pressure on lawmakers to get things done.
    "I especially appreciated that everything was on such a fast track so that it didn't give us any time to fight about it," Garcia said.
    Richardson said he got nearly everything he wanted from his first legislative session, including:
  • A slew of school reform measures, including proposed constitutional amendments to create a governor-appointed secretary of public education and increase the annual distribution from a permanent fund to pay for school reforms;
  • A package cutting the state's income tax and capital gains tax by nearly $360 million over the next five years;
  • Tougher penalties and required treatment for repeat DWI offenders;
  • Stronger domestic violence laws;
  • A statewide water plan; and
  • Restored collective bargaining rights for public employees.
        Richardson agreed to go along with a plan to significantly boost retirement benefits of current and former legislators, allowing it to become law Saturday without his signature.
        In the final days of the session, Richardson signed legislation putting the state's spending package into place.
        The governor signed a $4.1 billion state budget bill after line-item vetoing $2.1 million.
        On Saturday, Richardson signed a supplemental spending measure, but used his line-item authority to nix $6.3 million, paring down the bill to about $65 million.
        Before adjourning at noon Saturday, lawmakers approved a bill to allow voters to decide whether to make Albuquerque Public Schools an "urban school district." That would free the state's largest school district from some state regulations but also would require it to report to the Legislature and the governor.
        "We're going to finally be able to deal with the problems of APS," said House Majority Whip James Taylor, an Albuquerque Democrat who sponsored the measure.
        Among measures awaiting action by the governor is a proposal to prevent a scheduled drop in the state gasoline tax, which current law says will drop from 17 cents a gallon to 16 cents a gallon July 1. Supporters say the measure will provide an estimated $6.4 million a year for state road construction and maintenance. Cities and counties would keep almost $2 million for their roads.
        Also awaiting approval are nearly $150 million worth of public works projects for the state and communities statewide.
        Lawmakers rejected a proposal to increase the gasoline tax by 5 cents a gallon.
        Lawmakers also rejected legislation to ban cockfighting in New Mexico, leaving it as only one of two states in the union to allow the controversial sport. And the Senate let die a long-sought, House-passed plan to open up the Legislature's conference committee meetings to the public.
        Among other bills failing to pass by noon Saturday was a measure to make it harder for the state Green Party and other third parties to achieve major party status in New Mexico.
        House Speaker Ben Lujan, D-Santa Fe, who sponsored the third-party bill, which was vehemently opposed by Greens, said Saturday he might revisit the issue in the future.
        One of the session's most emotional moments came late Friday as the Senate gave final approval, on a 22-20 vote, to a measure to prohibit discrimination against people based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
        Members of the gay community in the Senate gallery "were biting down on our fingernails, on everything we had," said Jo Kenny, of the Coalition for Equality in New Mexico.